What Would Calvin Do?

What to do if one finds oneself in a congregation that didn’t observe consistently the Regulative Principle of Worship (—the short definition: In stated services, the congregation observes only those elements required by God’s Word as prescribed by God’s Word; see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 96 and Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 21) and one had no alternative? That, in effect, was a question posed recently on the PB. We’ve also been discussing this topic on the HB in this combox thread. Here’s my answer:


As a pastoral matter I think it will be a long and difficult struggle to communicate the historic RPW to a subjectivist generation. A lot of our people don’t understand the RPW. Many, perhaps most, have never heard of the RPW. Most couldn’t state it clearly or correctly or concisely, but they think they understand worship. They don’t know our doctrine of the atonement but they know what they feel and experience during worship. Many of our people (those in ostensibly confessional congregations) don’t come from Reformed backgrounds. That can breed a certain resistance to the RPW. On the other hand, those who’ve been raised in the hymn-singing, instrument-playing, Reformed churches think “this is how Reformed churches worship.” They’re shocked to find out that, no, this isn’t historic or confessional Reformed worship.

All this is to say that, if it took the Reformed churches 30+ years to face the Shepherd controversy and that was about heaven and hell (righteousness with God), how much longer will it take us all, when about 1% of NAPARC actually consistently,regularly, practices the RPW as historically understood, to reform worship? It will take a long, long time. Most people don’t even know there’s a problem.

This means that those who hold the historic RPW will have to be very patient, calm, and gracious with our brothers and sisters (and their pastors, sessions, and consistories) who’ve not yet faced this issue or who have decided in favor of the status quo.

For my part, I try to find a psalm in the same meter and I sing along quietly. If I can’t, then I stand (if the congregation is standing), so as not to disturb the congregation and draw attention to myself. I wouldn’t judge anyone for a different approach. Frankly we’re in uncharted waters.

We spent the last 150 years fighting the liberals and when we came back home from the war we found that our churches were in tatters theologically and liturgically. They weren’t in grand shape, in every regard, before the war. It will take time.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    It’s troubling that at too many Presbyterian churches the RPW is simply not a topic of concern anymore. Worship is all too often seen as a personal preference of one style over another as opposed to what’s Biblical and what’s not.

    Thanks for placing emphasis on the topic of the RPW as you have in the past few weeks.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    Completely off topic, but how do you view the singing of un-inspired songs in a private or family worship setting? This question was also raised recently at the PB. Personally, I’m an exclusive Psalmodist who is okay with other songs in a private worship setting. I shared this opinion and a few people flew off the handle =) Should the regulative principle apply in the same way to our private and family worship? Or would utilizing uninspired hymnody in a private worship setting violate the RPW? Just curious knowing that your position only allows for inspired songs in corporate worship. Thanks!

  3. Hi SP,

    I know that some disagree with me but I don’t think that the RPW is intended to govern private worship. For a variety of reasons having to do with office, sola scriptura, and other things I think it’s a categorical mistake to conflate public, stated services with private acts of devotion. We do things in our chapel devotions that I would not do in a stated service. My impression is that is how the RPCNA ministers generally handle this matter.

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